He fled Pakistan for the relative safety of Australia, only to meet tragedy in a detention camp
Nobody can understand the pain and plight of 22-year-old Mohammad Naqi*. A father murdered in Quetta. A forced migration from his hometown. A brother stabbed in a “detention camp” in Nauru. And a sister who died in his lap due to lack of treatment in the very same camp. Ironically, this family of three had fled from Quetta to protect their lives.
“I am safe today, but I have paid a huge price for this security. I am a broken man. I want to piece myself together again, but sometimes, I just don’t have the strength to do so.”
Even for a community used to migration, the concept of ‘Home’ is fast-becoming alien to many Hazaras. “How can you talk about home, when we weren’t safe in the sanctity of our houses?” Naqi bellowed.
Naqi’s plight started in 2012, when his father was shot dead in a Quetta bazaar — for the crime of being a Hazara. They buried him alongside their mother, who had passed away in in 2001.
Orphaned and insecure, the three siblings decided to make the move to Australia, a country that had been accepting Hazara asylum-seekers. “Some family friends had migrated to Australia in 2008. We contacted the same human trafficker who had handled their case,” narrated Naqi. “After an initial deposit was made, we set off for Malaysia from Karachi, on a legitimate tourist visa. From Malaysia, we were supposed to go to Indonesia, from where we were to be smuggled to Australia by boat.”
It all went according to plan, till the siblings arrived in Australia — in February 2013.
“Even before we reached Australian shores, we were apprehended by Australian authorities. We were then sent to Nauru, to live in tents in what they call detention centres. That’s where I first lost my elder brother, and then my younger sister,” Naqi recalled.
These detention centres are the cornerstone of the Australian immigration mechanism for asylum-seekers, explained Perth-based Jasmina Brankovich of the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN). “The John Howard-led government instituted what is known as the ‘Pacific Solution’ — offshore detention centres were created in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, from where asylum-seekers were to be brought to Australia,” she explained.
In theory, all asylum-seekers from across the globe are to be vetted at these detention centres — the reality is less sanitised.
“My brother, Saqib*, spoke some English,” narrated Naqi. “We met some African refugees at the same camp. They lived a few rows away from us. They didn’t speak English, so it was difficult to communicate with them. For some reason - I think it was over food - they quarrelled with Saqib one day. From then on, our relations became strained with them. One night, there was another altercation. The African men stabbed my brother, and there was nowhere I could go for medical help. He died the same night.”
Naqi also lost his sister, Salma*, because there was no medical treatment available for her when she contracted fever. “By the time, a doctor was sent to visit, it was too late. Apparently my sister was suffering from pneumonia. Salma breathed her last in my arms. In my arms.”
Alleging “inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers” at the hands of Australian authorities, Brankovich argued that the phenomenon needs to be placed in the context of racism in Australia. “Refugees are used as a political football,” she said. “There is a staggering amount of ignorance in Australia on the issue of asylum-seekers. The Hazara people are suffering genocide, they have a right to seek asylum in Australia.”
On the Australian government’s part, all efforts were focussed on resettling permanent Afghan Hazara refugees living in Pakistan. Sources working on migration from Pakistan, including Hazara migration, claimed that the Australian government was initially working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resettle registered Afghan Hazara refugees in Pakistan to Australia.
Per the initial arrangement, being discussed in February 2013, about 3,000 families could have been accommodated, but after carrying out a headcount, it turned out that there were only a little over 700 registered Afghan Hazara refugees living in Pakistan. This opened up space and the opportunity for Pakistani Hazaras to be accommodated in the asylum programme. The arrangement currently depends on the various agencies short-listing families deemed most vulnerable.
“In truth, Australia is still a colonial nation, a country that has not set itself free from its colonial past,” claimed Brankovich. “Boats are a very small percentage of transportation means adopted by asylum-seekers. But there is manipulation of Australian public opinion against asylum-seekers. When you visit detention centres, you’ll find people who are irreparably damaged. There is absolute mental health disintegration there.”
The pathetic situation at detention centres came to the fore in Australia as a team of 15 doctors, who headed to Christian Island to inspect medical facilities and the immigration process, issued a 92-page “letter of concern” that detailed gross medical malpractices by Australian authorities in their attempt to divert asylum-seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
The doctors, employed by the International Health and Management Services (IHMS), alleged that their employers and the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) have made decisions that “do not appear to have always been made in the best interest of patients.”
Among other explosive revelations, the doctors claimed: “Patients are now being cleared on the basis of an ineffective assessment and without pathology. Inappropriate reallocation of doctors away from clinics to perform more of these clinically unreliable assessments results in the deterioration of chronic disease and delayed treatment of acute illness.”
In related developments, on Jan 19, 2014, the Nauru government not only sacked but also deported its only magistrate, Peter Law. It also cancelled the visa of its chief justice, Geoffrey Eames, when he tried to intervene and prevent Law’s deportation. Both men were Australian citizens. It is widely believed that the action was prompted due to the pair’s treatment of asylum-seekers.
While Australia struggles with accommodating asylum-seekers in a societal fabric that is tainted by racism, families like Naqi’s have broken down. The Hazara people in Pakistan are a people defined by migration: Naqi’s grandparents migrated from Afghanistan and he himself had to move to Australia. He is now living in Sydney as a permanent Australian resident, but in search of safety, Naqi lost the very family he tried to save. “Some nights I wake up with dreams of holding my brother’s body. And some nights I wake holding my sister,” he says in a low voice. The nightmare, it seems, simply never ends.
Names changed to protect privacy
The author can be reached at @ASYusuf